The bibliography tucked at the tail end of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Queen might come as a surprise to those who assume that only nonfiction writers are rooted to the rigors of scholarly research. For this best-selling author of novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen’s Fool and The Virgin’s Lover, a passion for historical accuracy is the cornerstone of her abundant story-telling gift. Deftly weaving fact and fiction into a lyrical, literary tapestry that transcends the boundaries of the too-often predictable genre of historical fiction, Gregory has once again crafted a mesmerizing novel that will keep readers turning pages deep into the night.
Gregory’s legions of loyal fans are already well aware of the author’s aptitude for capturing the timeless pathos of 16th-century Englishwomen, royals and peasants alike. Perhaps never before has Mary, Queen of Scots, been portrayed in such a contemporary, complex manner: a beautiful, charming, headstrong and spoiled young woman who is both maddeningly self-absorbed and overwhelmingly courageous. The same is true for the novel’s anti-heroine, Bess of Hardwick, who transcends her hardscrabble childhood via a trail of calculated betrothals and consequent widowhoods. Proud and pragmatic, Bess harbors no illusions about romantic love, and instead, sets her heart on the comforts of rank and financial security, a coup she achieves with her final marriage, to George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.
Nonetheless, after Bess and George Talbot are asked by Queen Elizabeth to provide “sanctuary” for the beleaguered Mary, Queen of Scots, the couple’s companionable marriage is jeopardized, with poor George smitten by the young queen’s winsome ways, and his once implacable wife reeling with jealousy and, worse, the discovery that she is once again on the brink of poverty.
In the end, which arrives after a series of riveting chapters alternating between the voices and perspectives of Mary, Bess and George, nothing is what it seems. This spellbinding tale of Elizabethan England adds up to a novel as sweet and thorny as a wild English rose.
Karen Ann Cullotta is a freelance writer and journalism instructor in Chicago.